On Monday I spoke with Chicago PBS’ nightly news program Chicago Tonight, talking about social media metrics and my seven years of work on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram Demetricator. Read the story and watch the interview here.
The Telegraph (UK), in an article titled The quest to create a world without likes, retweets and follower counts, wrote about how Twitter, Instagram, and others are now experimenting with hiding metrics. Here’s an excerpt, from journalist Laurence Dodds:
“When we see a number that reflects our social interactions, it’s very hard for us not to want that number to be larger,” says Ben Grosser, an artist and professor at the University of Illinois whose work focuses on the cultural effects of software.
“Ten likes is good, but I’d really prefer 11; 100 followers is great, but 200 would be better. It relates to self-esteem, to how we evolved with the need to feel value about ourselves and others, but now value is quantifiable. So we are compelled by the presence of the numbers to want them to be bigger.”
It was this “desire for more” that persuaded Grosser to build the work he is probably most famous for: a series of custom computer programs called “demetricators” which plug into Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and render all numbers invisible.
Read the whole piece at The Telegraph (free registration required).
In an article titled The Illinois Artist Behind Social Media’s Latest Big Idea, the new tech magazine OneZero wrote about my seven year (and going) project to “demetricate” social media. Will Oremus writes:
Grosser’s ideas, initially fringey and obscure, have gained traction over the years among tech critics and garnered mainstream press coverage. The CEOs of both Twitter and Instagram have articulated their rationales in terms that evoke Grosser’s critiques, noting how the visual prominence of like and follower counts can encourage people to treat the platforms like a competition. Even Kanye West has become an advocate of hiding metrics on social media.
Yet Grosser himself has gone unrecognized and unmentioned by the big Silicon Valley tech firms, even as they begin at last to incorporate fragments of the ideas that he has been propounding for so long. “It’s certainly been a strange ride to watch the ideas emerge in the public consciousness,” he said in a phone interview. After years in which it felt like he was shouting “demetrication” into the void, “It’s a bit disorienting to see everyone from Jack Dorsey to Kanye West to now Instagram talking about it.”
It’s a study in how a critique of technology that’s ahead of its time can be ignored for years, then suddenly catch fire in Silicon Valley when circumstances shift — and companies that once dismissed it find it in their interest to espouse. Whether they’ve actually taken it to heart is another matter.
The piece is comprehensive, and includes quotes from Twitter and Instagram. If you don’t already follow Will Oremus‘ writing about tech and culture, you should. He’s part of a small group of journalists doing important, considered, and critical writing about big tech.
One point of clarification in relation to the piece. Will writes about Facebook’s move to kick Demetricator off the Chrome Web Store in 2016, saying: “[Grosser] says it was due to a takedown request by Facebook.” For any journalists interested in this history, I’ll be happy to provide documentation of the takedown request, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation—who represented me pro bono in that conflict—is also happy to talk about the case. Just let me know.
I’ll have two works at IASIS, an exhibition opening next week at TILT Platform in Loutraki, Greece. Safebook will be exhibited at Ξενοδοχειο Beau Rivage Λουτράκι, while Get More will be all over the city as part of BrowserBased (and I’ll setup a US-based monitoring terminal during the show).
IASIS is curated by Fofi Vergidou, Makis Faros, Zoi Pirini, and Takis Zervedas … and BrowserBased is organized by Zsolt Mesterhazy, Bjørn Magnhildøen, Alex Zakkas, and Joubin Zargarbashi.
My older sound work If But Or will be part of an installation at this year’s ArteScienza Festival in Rome. Under the theme Interattivo-Adattivo (Interactive-Adaptive), the installation includes “eight reflective screens distributed in the Goethe-Institut lower garden, allowing the sound sources placed at their bases to widen the lobes of sound radiation and offer the listener an extended, non-localizable scenario, within which are however perceptible the trajectories or movements of the sound modulated in depth and width.” (translation via Google)
Interestingly, If But Or was the first work I made using my new (at that time) synthesis software called GACSS (Genetic Algorithms in Composition and Sound Synthesis). If you’re in Rome, here is info for the concert on 5 July. Otherwise, you can hear If But Or by clicking below:
ORDER OF MAGNITUDE part of Please don’t stand in the middle of the road waiting for me to get you on camera
My work ORDER OF MAGNITUDE is part of an online exhibition titled Please don’t stand in the middle of the road waiting for me to get you on camera (exhibition info, enter exhibition). From curator Bob Bicknell-Knight:
The works presented consider how human beings are increasingly reliant on digital technologies, from navigating through offline environments utilising Google Maps to having a job as a micro-tasker, working for an online service where users pay to have a pretend girlfriend or boyfriend text them. The crafting of digital, online identities, to be monetised and utilised when traversing offline space has become increasingly prevalent due to the rise of social media sites, allowing everybody to be anybody in a world of hypercapitalism. The exhibition takes its name from a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) with a Google Maps Driver. Throughout the thread the driver details their exploits, from sticking to the speed limit to being harassed at rest stops.
The show is up through 23 July, and includes works by Aram Bartholl, Petra Cortright, Joe Hamilton, and Pilvi Takala.
I’m happy to share that my work Computers Watching Movies will be part of the exhibition AI: More Than Human at the Barbican Centre in London. According to the Barbican, “AI: More than Human is an unprecedented survey of the creative and scientific developments in artificial intelligence, exploring the evolution of the relationship between humans and technology.” The show is divided into four sections: The Dream of AI, Mind Machines, Data Worlds, and Endless Evolution. My work is part of the Mind Machines section. The exhibition is curated by Dr. Suzanne Livingston and Maholo Uchida and runs from 16 May to 26 August, 2019. The show will travel after its run at the Barbican, with its next stop at the Groninger Forum in The Netherlands.
I’ve just launched my latest work, titled ORDER OF MAGNITUDE, a nearly fifty minute supercut that draws from video recorded appearances of Mark Zuckerberg from 2004-2018. Using these videos as source material, the work examines what the tech CEO cares about, how he thinks, and what he hopes to attain.
The work premieres as part of arebyte on screen (AOS), “a platform dedicated to artist videos, multimedia experiences and curatorial interventions utilizing digital formats to address current political, economic and theoretical discussion, viewable 24/7 both online and via a screen in the gallery…” This edition of AOS is curated by David Quiles Guilló.
My work on social media demetrication—and the writer’s experience of using it—is the subject of a feature article in the March issue of Wired Magazine. In a piece titled I Am Immeasurable: My Life Online—Without all the Metrics, Senior Associate Editor Arielle Pardes talks about her ups and downs with metrics-free social media. Pardes writes of how it felt after she demetricated:
It took a second. The rivers of tweets and ’grams still flowed, dragging along the usual cyberpollution. I composed a tweet with a link to a story I’d written, then refreshed the page and waited for my digital pat on the back. It never arrived. Where once I hovered my cursor, waiting for the dopamine hits, there was only blankness. … Not that I immediately stopped searching for approval. When someone new followed me on Twitter, I’d make my way to their follower count … only to find nothing. I’d dreamily wonder how many people liked my latest Instagram post or whether I was the first or 500th to retweet a joke. With the demetricators engaged, I found my cursor circling vacant space, waiting to be told how to think. The emptiness made apparent how much I’d depended on those numbers.
There’s plenty more; I don’t want to spoil it. Read the whole thing.
I should also note that Pardes and others talked discussed my Twitter Demetricator a few months ago for a segment on the Wired Gadget Lab Podcast. You can listen here (link should jump right to it, but just in case, it starts at 31:05).
I’m excited to be headed up to the University of Michigan to give a talk as part of the “soft” opening for their new Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing (ESC). (gotta love that acronym — perfect). Part of the “CRITICAL x DESIGN” segment of the series, the title of my talk is Less Metrics, More Rando: (Net) Art as Software Research. I’ll speak about a number of my works, and spend some time on my artistic method of software recomposition.
I was happy to find my works Facebook Demetricator, Twitter Demetricator, and Go Rando all cited in Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, titled The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Zuboff writes:
I have suggested that too many of the best and brightest of a new generation devote their genius to the intensification of the click-stream. Equally poignant is the way in which a new generation of activists, artists, and inventors feels itself called to create the art and science of hiding. The intolerable conditions of glass life compel these young artists to dedicate their genius to the prospects of human invisibility, even as their creations demand that we aggressively seek and find our bearings. … Artist Benjamin Grosser’s Facebook and Twitter “demetricators” are software interfaces that present each site’s pages with their metrics deleted: “the numbers of ‘likes,’ ‘friends,’ followers, retweets … all disappear.” How is an interface that foregrounds our friend count changing our conceptions of friendship? he asks. “Remove the numbers and find out.” Grosser’s “Go Rando” project is a web browser extension that “obfuscates your feelings on Facebook” by randomly choosing an emoji each time you click “Like,” thus undermining the corporation’s surplus analyses as they compute personality and emotional profiles.
I’m currently working my way through the text … highly recommended.
My works Safebook and Go Rando will be part of the exhibition Self as Actor: Colonising Identity opening this Friday at the NeMe Arts Center in Cyprus. The exhibition, which is curated by Helene Black and Aysu Arsoy examines:
Digitality is no longer separated from our every day lives but has become an integrated experience, a depiction of our complex and hierarchical social reality. Although, by now, many users have become aware of the large degree big data involves the vigorous use of what many identify as biased and racist algorithms for analytics as well as software for surveillance, it has not curbed the mass use of social media. In fact, mass networking on social media has become the cultural tool for establishing a sense of intimacy despite the unease of personal disclosure. Real issues such as human rights abuses, homelessness or climate change cannot contest viral videos, fake news, cute pets and more recently, the controversial obsession with ‘dark tourism’ selfies. Algorithms are meant to inform us but the trend since Web 2.0 (1999 onwards), has shifted towards collecting information on users for selective advertisements and political manipulation. Online social activities are tracked and monitored abusing our right of privacy. Targeted personalisation on the Internet today purges reality with users becoming dehumanised commodities existing in a fabricated unreality. The control of the coloniser is now defined by the monopoly of the data colonised.
Read more about it at the NeMe Arts Center.
My work Computers Watching Movies (American Beauty) will be part of an upcoming event at Harlesden High Street in London. This event is titled New Materialities in the Digital Age, and features a presentation and screening program by curator Doreen A. Ríos. The event is from 19:00-22:00 on 22 October, and is part of an opening for an exhibition that runs through 22 November.
…presents a speculative “Silicon Valley Imagineering Laboratory,” a 21st century office interior thick with counter-narratives and factual misinformation. Exploring the landscape of contemporary media and technology, Inside Intel investigates their influence on conspiratorial thinking. Artistic methodologies presented in the show range from the architectural modeling of war crimes to speculative design, via browser-extensions and Twitter-bots, taking in both the satirical and the deeply unsettling. Whilst some artworks peddle faux state propaganda and sinister new technologies, others take the form of genuine investigations and purposefully staged analysis. The result is an environment where fact, fiction, and the theoretically possible seamlessly blur into one another. Mirroring the difficulties we all face when navigating the fog of electronic propaganda that pervades our new media ecosystems, Inside Intel demands an investigative eye to separate the signal from the noise.
Inside Intel is curated by Elliott Burns, Jake Charles Rees and India Murphy, and was commissioned in response to and to accompany the Centre for Investigative Journalism’s 2018 Logan Symposium: Conspiracy. It will be held at St James Hatcham, Goldsmiths, University of London, and is up from 16-20 October, 2018.